Feminist icon Marie Stopes’ name dropped from birth control charity after 40+ years. Why do left-wingers burn their own icons?
Yet another institution has been renamed because its founder, once a feminist hero, had ‘problematic’ views. But why do left-wing activists often turn against their own icons? It may be a matter of psychology.
“Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.” So said the royalist Jacques Mallet du Pan in a widely circulated essay on the French Revolution. He was referring, of course, to the fate of men like Hébert, Danton and Robespierre. These agitators played a central role in fomenting the revolution, but they were eventually executed by other revolutionaries.
During the early decades of the Soviet Union, numerous members of the Communist Party were expelled, imprisoned, or killed in periodic ‘purges’. Some of these individuals, such as Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Yezhov, were famously airbrushed out of photographs in an attempt to remove them from Soviet history. (Yezhov is apparently known as ‘The Vanishing Commissar’ among art historians.)
Fortunately, modern ideological purges don’t usually involve anyone getting executed. What they do involve is the retroactive stripping of honours from people whose views are found to be incompatible with modern sensibilities. This year, Britain and the United States have witnessed a particularly efficient and far-reaching ideological purge, the latest victim of which is the women’s rights campaigner Marie Stopes.
On 17 November, the charity formerly known as ‘Marie Stopes International’ officially changed its name to ‘MSI Reproductive Choices’. This was done, the charity explained, to send “a clear signal that we neither adhere to nor condone” Stopes’s views. (However, given that they chose to retain the initials ‘MS’, one could argue the signal isn’t actually all that clear. I suppose the equivalent would be removing the head of a statue but leaving the rest.)
The views to which the charity was referring, of course, were Stopes’s pro-eugenic ones. As the chief executive explained, Stopes was “a supporter of the eugenics movement and expressed many opinions which are in stark contrast to MSI’s core values and principles.” Never mind that ‘MSI Reproductive Choices’ owes its existence to the clinics that Stopes established in cities across the UK – clinics that provided free family planning services to thousands of women at a time when those services were severely limited.
Stopes, who obtained a PhD in botany at age 24 and became the University of Manchester’s first female academic, was once considered a feminist icon. In 2008, she was chosen by an all-female committee to appear in a collection of postage stamps titled ‘Women of Distinction’, along with Millicent Fawcett and Barbara Castle. At the time, Marie Stopes International said that although Stopes may have courted controversy, “it is difficult not to be astounded” by her achievements.
Another erstwhile feminist icon who was recently defenestrated is Stopes’s American counterpart – the birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. Like Stopes, Sanger was a staunch proponent of eugenics, and in July of this year, Planned Parenthood – the organisation which she founded – decided to remove her name from its flagship Manhattan clinic. In a statement, the organisation noted that Sanger’s support for eugenics “runs completely counter to our values”.
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Yet as recently as 2009, Hillary Clinton said of Sanger, “I am really in awe of her”, suggesting that the former First Lady was capable of recognising Sanger’s contributions without endorsing all her views. In the current year, however, taking a measured approach to Sanger’s legacy is apparently no longer tenable. (I can only assume Clinton now looks back at herself in horror: ‘I was in awe of a eugenicist?!’)
To the cases of Stopes and Sanger, we may soon be adding that of George Bernard Shaw – the famous socialist intellectual and playwright, who also advocated eugenics. In September, students at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London called for the George Bernard Shaw Theatre to be renamed. While RADA has already admitted to being “institutionally racist”, it has not yet clarified whether Bernard Shaw’s views are inconsistent with its ‘core values’. (As everyone knows, all good drama schools are based on a foundation of opposition to eugenics.)
Student demands for the cancellation of Bernard Shaw are particularly egregious given that RADA would be a much poorer institution today were it not for the playwright’s generous financial gifts. He stumped up the cash to pay for one of RADA’s buildings, and left the academy one third of his posthumous royalties. (Here one is reminded of the Rhodes scholars in Oxford who campaigned for their own benefactor to ‘fall’.)
It is not only feminists and socialists from history who are no longer appreciated in the institutions they founded or endowed. In the last few weeks, two prominent left-wing journalists have quit the outlets they helped to set-up. On 29 October, Glenn Greenwald announced that he had left The Intercept (which he co-founded in 2013) after getting fed up with the atmosphere of “repression, censorship and ideological homogeneity”.
Then on 13 November, Matt Yglesias announced that he had left Vox (which he co-founded in 2014) so that he could enjoy “more editorial independence”. His departure came after an incident back in June where one of his colleagues, who happens to be transgender, told the editors that seeing Yglesias’s signature on the Harper’s Letter (a widely-publicised statement opposing cancel culture) made her “feel less safe at Vox”.
So why do left-wing activists often turn on their own? It may come down to left-wing political psychology.
According to moral foundations theory, developed by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues, people’s moral judgements are based on five main ‘foundations’: harm/care; fairness/proportionality; loyalty/ingroup; authority/respect; and sanctity/purity. (A sixth, freedom/coercion, was added later.) Haidt and his colleagues collected data from many different countries, and found that people with left-wing views tend to rely on harm/care and fairness/proportionality, whereas people with right-wing views tend to rely on all five.
Of particular interest in the present context is that people with left-wing views are consistently less likely to rely on the loyalty/ingroup and authority/respect foundations. (One study found that market shares for new products tend to be lower in Republican-leaning counties of the US, which could reflect stronger brand loyalty on the part of right-wing consumers.) It may not be surprising, therefore, that people with left-wing views tend to show less loyalty and respect for their own icons.
When it comes to the fate of left-wing historical figures, there are of course two opposing forces at work. One is the force I have just described, which might be termed ‘current year iconoclasm’. The other is good old hypocrisy (that is, holding left-wing icons to a different standard from everyone else). Only time will tell which of these two forces wins out. If it is the former, we may yet see the defenestration of such luminaries as Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels, which you have to admit, would be quite something.
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